Undergraduate teaching

Knowledge hoarded is of no value, and therefore it is in the classroom that one finds the heart of the university professor’s mandate.  In my small lecture courses, larger film classes, and seminars, I seek to bring a highly interactive style that fosters frequent student participation in the shared process of learning.  One concern I have for most of my undergraduate courses is to expose students to primary sources from the traditions in question, hearing directly the voices of religious others and learning how to analyze texts, films, and other media with an informed critical eye—skills I consider important for responsible life in our newly digital citizenry.  Clear communication is also a crucial skill in today’s world, and to that end I assign many papers over the course of the term so that students have an opportunity to improve their abilities at formulating arguments, marshaling appropriate evidence, and developing a voice that is persuasive and sophisticated.

At the undergraduate level, my teaching clusters into three primary areas.  First is work on North America.  Approximately every 1-2 years I teach RS 219 Religion in America, which provides a historical overview from pre-Columbian times to the present of religious trends in the area that became the United States of America, focusing on specific religious traditions, recurrent themes, major events, and especially the interactions between religions and between religion and other aspects of society.  On a more occasional basis, I also teach RS 222 Sacred Places in North America, which looks at the many types of places designated as religious by various religions, considering such factors as architecture, art, ritual use, contests over meaning, the use of power to claim space, and changing definitions of what can qualify as sacred.  Another occasional course is RS 227 Buddhism in North America, a seminar that explores the myriad Buddhist traditions practices in the United States and Canada, and provides the opportunity to conduct an in-depth research project.  For students wishing to go further with their studies in this area, I sometimes offer RS 398 Directed Readings in Buddhism in North America.  For those interested in Islam, race, or new religious movements, I teach RS 398 Black Muslims in the Americas.  A further course, RS 114 Sex, Politics, and Religion in North America, is currently in development.

A second area of teaching is in East Asian studies.  Alternating one year or the next, I teach RS 201R/EASIA 205R Religion in East Asia and RS 206R/EASIA 206R Japanese Religion.  The former course provides basic information on religious and ideological traditions in China, Korea, and Japan, including Daoism, Confucianism, Buddhism, Shamanism, Christianity, and Communism.  RS 206R Japanese Religion dwells on Japan specifically for an entire term, providing deeper exploration of the world of Shinto, Buddhism, Chinese traditions, Western influences, and new religious movements in premodern and contemporary Japan.  In addition to my regular office hours and the time spent in the classroom every week, some semesters I run a weekly optional workshop wherein we read our translated Japanese primary sources together, examining them in light of our secondary readings and the forms of analysis laid out in course lecture.  RS 206R is usually followed in the Winter term by RS 275 Religion and Japanese Film, which aims to convey information about Japanese religion via movies and to develop understanding of the religious and cultural ideas embedded in Japanese pop cultural artifacts.  I also offer a more advanced version, RS 391 Japanese Religion and Visual Culture, which considers further media such as manga and anime, and traditional arts such as noh, kabuki, and bunraku theatre, as well as folk arts such as ema.  Students interested in the Buddhist tradition can take RS 204 Buddhism, offered every 2-3 years.  I offer several more advanced East Asian courses including RS 301/EASIA 330R Pure Land Buddhism, RS 304 Zen Buddhism (aka Zen and Now), and RS 398 Religion in Contemporary Japan, which are provided on an occasional basis.  A new course, RS 123/EASIA 120R Monsters and Magic in Japanese Popular Culture, will be debuted in the Winter 2017 term.

A third area of significant undergraduate teaching is theory and methods in the study of religion.  There are three primary courses in this area which I typically teach in an alternating fashion year-to-year.  First is RS 125 Introduction to Religion, which exposes students to the academic study of religion as an influential facet of culture, developing skills for critical understanding of the role religion plays and has played in various societies.  This is accomplished through examination of specific religious traditions and by frequent attention to current events involving religion in some fashion.  RS 260 How to Study Religion is required for all RS major and minors.  It provides a comprehensive overview of theoretical and methodological approaches to the study of religion, including sociological, anthropological, historical, feminist, and other modes of investigation.  This provides a toolbox of possible ideas and techniques to take into the student’s future courses and in their observations of religious phenomena in the real world.  And RS 499 Honours Seminar in the Study of Religion provides advanced instruction for our top majors and minors, often as a preliminary to graduate school application.  There are two other courses that I have taught frequently, RS 120 Religious Quests and RS 271/FINE 254 Themes in Religion and Film.  I am no longer offering these courses in my standard rotation, but RS 271 is taught often by my colleague Douglas Cowan, and either may be offered upon student request.


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